New Campaign Slams Detroit, Washington as U.S. Gas Mileage Hits 22-Year Low

NRDC and the Detroit Project Rip Automakers for Broken Fuel-Saving Pledges

TV Ads Spotlight Mideast Oil Dependence as Senate Starts Energy Security Debate.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 7, 2003) -- The heated debate over America's dependence on Middle East oil returns to the airwaves this week with a provocative new ad campaign challenging both Detroit car companies and Washington policy makers to deliver fuel-efficient cars and SUVs.

The ads are a joint venture of NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Detroit Project, an advocacy group co-founded by author and columnist Arianna Huffington. With humor and polish, they turn a glossy car commercial on its head -- showcasing the high-mileage, high-performance cars and trucks Detroit could build today, but won't. Click here to watch the ad. Viewers can also see the spots on NRDC's Break the Chain website.

The ads hit at a critical juncture in the nation's post-war political agenda. They follow last Friday's news from the Environmental Protection Agency that U.S. fuel economy reached a 22-year low in 2002, and come just as the Senate takes up controversial new energy legislation. The campaign also appears at the same time that American companies are abandoning voluntary fuel-saving pledges.

"America needs a line of cars that can get us to work in the morning without sending us to war in the afternoon," said Huffington. "If today's vehicles averaged 40 mpg, we would save more oil than we import each year from the Persian Gulf. We have the technology to start fixing the problem, but the Big Three in Detroit and their friends in Congress and the White House are blocking the road."

Car companies have opposed every serious effort to improve safety and fuel economy, according to NRDC, while their voluntary efforts have come to nothing. Last month Ford Motor Company abandoned a much-touted promise to increase the efficiency of its SUVs by 25 percent, and scaled back plans for a fuel-saving hybrid SUV. That same week, General Motors began stressing caveats and fine print undercutting widely advertised hybrid plans announced by the company just a few months ago.

"Detroit is waving a white flag instead of an American flag. They have surrendered the battle for energy security," said NRDC Attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. "Car companies are blaming American consumers for a scandal that starts in Detroit and ends in Washington. Every car and truck in America should be safe and have the most efficient technology possible. What could be more patriotic?"

America cannot drill its way out of the problem. The U.S. has just 3 percent of world oil reserves, compared with 65 percent beneath the Persian Gulf. Experts say controversial proposals to drill for oil in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would expand reserves by a mere one third of one percent.

We import more than half our daily oil from some of the most politically unstable places in the world, in turn sending send more than $20 billion every year just to the Gulf region. And our oil problems aren't just the Middle East: Recently, crises in Venezuela and unrest in Nigeria each caused price spikes and supply disruptions in the United States.

"Whether you were for or against the war in Iraq, we can all agree that it's time to make sure our military and economic strength are never held captive to the politics of petroleum," Huffington said. "We need cars and trucks that meet our transportation and safety needs without sacrificing our freedom, security or prosperity."

NRDC and the Detroit Project say carmakers are using "checkbook diplomacy" to keep better solutions off the road. Since 1990 the auto industry has made more than $80 million in federal campaign contributions, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

"Detroit has been fighting safety and fuel economy standards for 30 years, all the while promising voluntary solutions that never arrive. It's time for sensible standards that put existing technology on the road in every car, truck and SUV," Kennedy said. "Kicking our oil addiction means more money in our pockets, more jobs in our economy, and more freedom for America to stand tall in the world."

Passenger cars are required to average 27.5 mpg while SUVs, pickups and minivans classified as light trucks must get just 20.7 mpg. For years, lawmakers have exempted SUVs and light trucks from automotive safety, pollution, and fuel economy rules, and even given them special tax breaks. All these moves stifle innovation where it is needed most. As a result, major advances have bypassed half of the new vehicles sold in America.

While American automakers are standing still, their Japanese competitors are pressing ahead. Last month, Toyota introduced the second generation of its pioneering hybrid system in the 2004 Prius, a five-passenger car that is bigger, faster and cleaner than today's model and gets 15 percent better mileage (an estimated 55 mpg). Toyota will introduce the system in a Lexus SUV next year, promising V-8 performance and the mileage of a 4-cylinder compact. The company expects to sell 300,000 hybrids a year worldwide by 2005.

U.S. automakers and the Bush administration say we should wait for the emerging technology of hydrogen-powered fuel cells instead of using existing solutions to meet stronger fuel economy standards today.

While fuel cells are a highly promising answer in the long run, experts agree it will be at least two decades before they are available in large enough numbers to make a dent in oil demand. In the meantime, Americans will keep buying 17 million new cars and trucks each year. NRDC calculates that a 40 mpg fuel economy standard would save nearly 25 times more oil by 2020 than even the most aggressive fuel cell launch schedule.

"Fuel cells are a terrific long-term solution," said Kennedy. "But we have an energy security problem now, and we need solutions now."

The television ads will air in markets across the country, including Detroit, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Philadelphia, and Tampa-St. Petersburg. A print version is appearing in USA Today on May 7. The spots were directed by Scott Burns, co-creator of the 'Got Milk?' campaign.

For more information, visit NRDC's Break the Chain website or The Detroit Project's website.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Dangerous Addiction: Ending America's Oil Dependence
Break the Chain